WRECK PARK

AN INTERVIEW WITH SIMON CRITCHLEY

  Simon Critchley is Hans Jonas Professor of Philosophy at the New School in New York. He is author
of several books of philosophy, including the 2014 book Bowie on the music of David Bowie. We spoke
with Critchley in the fall about the intersection of philosophy and music in his work and life, and the
polyvalent ways in which music and philosophy meet.

WRECK PARK

  You’ve referred to music as an “impossible object”—something that resists philosophy and makes legible the play of resistance and attraction. Music appears throughout the history of philosophy with different emphases and different valances at different times. What is your relationship to music as a philosopher? What is your relationship to music otherwise?

CRITCHLEY

  It is an impossible object in the kind of obvious sense where whatever one says about music is inadequate to the phenomenon and the experience of the phenomenon of music. Impossible in that sense is: how can you render the effects of music in terms which are approximate to it. You have to translate it into propositions or into statements. For me, music is rather important but it’s very hard to express its importance in terms which do justice to it.   In terms of how I came to all of this: I played in punk bands for a number of years and then that came to an end. And then I found myself at university reading philosophy and studying philosophy and for me there always was a felt continuity between what I was doing listening to music or playing in bands and what I did when I was doing philosophy. It was coming out of the same place, the same visceral place, although with different modes of articulation. It’s not that music stopped and I started to do philosophy, but it's more that philosophy became another way of trying to articulate whatever that thing was that’s at the core of musical experience. We could call that core desire.

WRECK PARK

  Could you say a bit more about that? About this relationship or “felt continuity” between music and philosophy

CRITCHLEY

  If we say philosophy at some level begins with the analogy of the cave, and is some kind of movement from deception to some other state, call it truth—and if it’s a kind of...conversion experience in the sense in which, not to put it too dramatically, an experience where the self kind of turns around from how it was previously into some new way of looking at things—then music for me was the means for doing that. Music was what really opened up a world for me in a really powerful way. Music was some kind of shift in whatever juvenile self I had when I was, say, twelve, fifteen or seventeen years old, and it opened up a different set of possibilities in relationship to what it meant to be a self and what a self could be in relation to a world. Given that philosophy is meant to be involved in the same kind of process, for me the two things have always been linked on one level. On another level, much of the philosophy that I’ve been preoccupied with over the years is crucially aware of how limited it is with regard to what it’s trying to articulate. Namely, that the language of propositions or of forms like papers and essays and books are not adequate to the thing which one is trying to articulate; and so it seems to me that a lot of the philosophers that have interested me—for example someone like Heidegger; and, in a previous life, Adorno or Levinas—it’s not that what they are saying could be said musically, but, in a sense [music] could be a different mode of articulation for intuitions in their work. There is a kind of strong analogy between music and philosophy: there is a sense which much of the philosophy that interests me has a strong sense of its inadequacy as a medium and there is a kind of yearning after another kind of medium that could do something else. You could say similar things about Nietzsche. In Heidegger, Dasein—human being—is being-in-the-world, and being-in-the-world is articulated for Heidegger through this thing that he calls discourse, which he distinguishes from language, talk, words. It seems to me that that intuition could be articulated musically in quite powerful ways, ways that Heidegger didn’t do himself, wasn’t able to do (he was tone deaf) and that is true of many of the thinkers that have interested me have had an aspiration toward another kind of medium. Music is a uniquely privileged medium.

WRECK PARK

  Continuing with this line of thinking, in Bowie you write, “music resounds and calls us to dissent from the world, to experience a dissensus communis, sociability at odds with common sense...through fakery and because of it we feel a truth that leads us beyond ourselves toward the imagination of some other being.” This imagining of new communal worlds seems to me to be bound up with a certain politics, the politics in the concept of music, and perhaps a certain utopian project.

CRITCHLEY

  In Bowie the argument I was making—insofar as there is an argument, the book was deliberately constructed like an album or set of verbal tunes—was that there is this powerfully dystopian vision in Bowie, a sense of the world as being ruined, a catastrophe, and at the same time an articulation either implicitly in the music or indirectly, sometimes more directly, of some other possible conditions, other possible set of aspirations for what it means to be human, or indeed, more than human, a kind of alien in Bowie’s sense. So it seems to me that that utopian intervention is continually profiled in musical experience. So maybe it’s just a contradiction. Music at one level is about common sense and sociability; what one listens to with others, or even if you are listening to music alone you are kind of imagining yourself with others, even if it’s the artist you’re listening to. There’s a kind of implicit sociability in music, and then obviously in the experience of a concert or dancing you are with others. So there’s a kind of sensus communis. But at the same time there is something about music which is disruptive of that. It’s about the articulation of dissensus communis or the articulation of some utopian standpoint, which can give us another view on our set of social relations. That is a political point. But the content of that political point is really quite vague; it’s not prescriptive or moralistic. It could be any number of different things.

WRECK PARK

  In the sense that music makes possible or constitutes this different articulation, that it cannot be prescriptive in a political sense and produces an imagined listening community...

CRITCHLEY

  It’s not going to give you a desired moral or political outcome. You can’t say that music is going to turn us all into Marxists or anarchists. It’s not like that. If you are listening to a lot of Rammstein or something, you might imagine some other way of being together. Music can lend itself as powerfully to forms of authoritarian, fascist, anti-democratic kinds of being together as well, and that’s something we can’t prevent musically; you can’t legislate against that musically, which is what makes music so interesting and so dangerous and so malleable. But, certainly in the music which is most important to me, thinking historically, there was some other way of being in your skin. Being with other people in a different way was kind of profiled in music, and that’s kind of what you were listening out for and tuning in to, and I think that’s hugely important. Otherwise it becomes a kind of “Muzak” or it becomes a kind of banal reassurance or re-attunement to an existing world. Music is more and more than that, which is what is so evil about Spotify. Everything becomes background music.

WRECK PARK

  This seems to return to what you were saying initially about how music is an experience of a transformation of the self and how the self relates to the world. It is not prescriptive, but it carries with it the potential in music to effect that transformation of self...

CRITCHLEY

  Or it could be a place where a whole set of things that you don’t believe and you can’t credit with truth become items of belief and become truth. I watched with great fascination about six months ago that documentary about Nick Cave [20,000 Days on Earth]. It was a beautiful film because he says things like “I don’t believe in God, but I believe in God when I’m playing music; I don’t believe in the devil but the devil there in the music.” There is a kind of suspension of the banal set of views that we have that we think of as our usual way of being in the world. They are suspended and then transformed when we give ourselves over to listening to the song. The song I really liked on [Nick Cave’s] last album is “Jubilee Street,” but it could be any number of songs. In “Jubilee Street” you’ve got a totally weird narrative: “here I come/up the hill/pushing my wheel of love...” and whoever this character is, he is transforming. Now on one level it’s not true. But it is true musically. This is why I guess I’m a romantic when it comes to music. I think it just has that capacity to transform. And I’m always shocked at people for whom that’s not the case. I just don’t understand them. That’s something about music: imagined communities, always. Often the musical experience which is particularly transforming—particularly if you are brought up on rock music or pop music—which might be had on your own listening to a record or with one or two other people listening to a record, there is in that a kind of imagined community of like-minded people for whom what you are listening to and what you think is important would be important for them too. Which is what it means to be a fan at some level, in the deep sense of being a fan.

WRECK PARK

  You make this case in Bowie, but I think it goes for Nick Cave as well. Artists like Bowie and Cave have a sense of the profound slipperiness of the self, the slipperiness of identity. This mode of backgrounding authenticity in a certain way—to be a fan in the deep sense you are talking about would be to come to that music or that artist with that sense of elasticity or slipperiness. If you don’t, you are not going to make it through…

CRITCHLEY

  It’s about the necessity of aliases or different personae or indirection or whatever it might be that one assumes a personage in Bowie through his changes, his transformations which in the ‘70s had a kind of clearly drawn character, but even in the songs on [Bowie’s] last album, The Next Day, every song is told from the standpoint of a distinctive persona that Bowie is adopting for the purpose of that song—and someone like Nick Cave too—and this raises a curious issue, which is: why is it that this cannot be said directly? Why do we need these aliases, these alien characters in order to produce music in the case of a Bowie or a Cave, and why is it that we need such personae and such characterizations to discover who we are? So this is kind of the whole trick of the way Bowie was inhabiting these Ziggy Stardust characters or Starman or alien characters that one began to understand who one was through this play of inauthenticity, play of fakery, which…one was not a dupe of that. People were, and still are, acutely aware of the fictional character of these conceits. Those conceits are the only things that were able to carry a kind of felt truth, and I guess that was one of the big points of the Bowie book: trying to cut the connection between authenticity and truth. The usual way we think about whether an artist is authentic or not is whether they really mean it or if it’s really coming out of some corner of their soul or not. It seems to me that most of the people who interest me are doing the opposite, they’re adopting a persona or a series of personages in order to articulate a truth which cannot be stated authentically, it requires these complex forms of mediation which we’re aware of as fictions, but they are still true. What’s neat about that is that that level of literary metafictional sophistication which you could associate with people who have advanced degrees in the humanities is something that people do listening to music all the time. They’re not stupid, they know what’s going on. Ordinary music listeners are treated like stupid herds of cattle by the music industry, but they are not cattle. They are clever wolves. I like that.

WRECK PARK

  Following this attempt at disarticulating authenticity from truth, I’d like to ask you about your relationship to punk, which you have written about peripherally in several disparate places and shares a deep affinity with both Bowie and Cave. Punk, for some, seems to want to lay claim to a certain scene of radical authenticity—unmediated, amateurish, and extremely direct—envisioning authenticity as constitutive to the musical form. This seems deeply unsatisfying, given the rich social and political histories affiliated with punk…

CRITCHLEY

  It was about a certain non-musicianship; new musical forms are always a reaction to what preceded them. And in the case of what was happening in the UK in the early 1970s, you had this excessively refined sense of musicianship and double-albums by bands like Yes and symphonic rock and incredibly technically brilliant musicians and the whole thing suddenly felt vacuous; and the way of reacting to that and bringing that down was through the elevation of non-musicianship. The first person who described himself as a non-musician was, in my memory, Brian Eno. Before he was doing ambient stuff when he was making his first solo albums, he couldn’t play anything and that was the point. That really became the method of punk, which developed into new musical forms often based around discord or based around extraordinary simplicity. Bands like the Slits, who really couldn’t play early on, then led to a kind of use of discord that, when you get to a band like Sonic Youth, becomes a fully articulated aesthetic form. For me it was the fundamental experience because I was born in 1960 and then it was all happening thirty miles away, down in London. There was a sense in which the center of the world was in London, and it was tremendously exciting to be on the edges of that. I was a little bit too young in many ways. What that was premised upon was year zero, the elimination of the entire previous musical culture; in particular, the culture around peace and love and the hippies and all the rest. It was a question of completely killing the 1960s. The really weird thing that happened at that time was that the entire previous history of music was suddenly deemed and seemed irrelevant apart from bands like the MC5, Iggy and the Stooges, and the Velvet Underground, who had been rather unimportant bands in terms of the general scheme of things. Suddenly they became the core, the grid, that everyone was listening to. How that happened, God only knows, it just happened. At the same time, reggae happened in England because Island Records [emerged] and Bob Marley was starting to do concerts in ‘75/‘76.
  Punk is about different levels of inauthenticity but a totally different musical configuration that becomes possible at a certain place and time. Also, the other thing, which is also really interesting but more difficult to put your finger on, is [musical forms] in relationship to a set of social conditions. I always thought that punk worked in Britain because it happened when the British economy was going through the floor; after the oil crisis there was the final realization of the end of empire and the illusions of “swinging London” and the 1960s and all that kind of faded away. The garbage workers were on strike. The country was in a state of crisis or decay and the cities were increasingly desolate and punk sprang into that space. And that is why punk was so much more of a national phenomenon than in the US where it was much more of a New York phenomenon or an urban phenomenon or bits of the West coast as well. But the mid-‘70s was a period of total American economic hegemony. So the relationship between new musical forms and social conditions is a really interesting one. You could tell that story in relation to Chicago, or Detroit more obviously, in relation to something like the emergence of techno. What is interesting is it’s not just a set of social conditions; you can’t be a reductive Marxist when it comes to how music emerges, but you can’t be non-Marxist either. There are social and economic relations here, and there are spaces [like in Detroit] that become available because the city had become more desolate; and then, at the same time, people were listening to different things. It’s not a question of some kind of expression of an authentic African-American culture. As it always is, the new form is a fusion between the different varieties, say, of African-American music and then the fact that they were listening to an awful lot of German electronic music and bands like Depeche Mode and things like that. New musical forms are always those configurations, it seems to me. And you can never quite tell where they’re going to pop up.
  And whether they’re going to pop up in the future is another question. There is a question about where we are now and what music means in the time of the cloud, as it were. I don’t have much more than banalities to offer; but the relation of music in the time of the cloud and what we might call a kind of pan-hipsterism, the omnipresence of a kind of a hipster sensibility which is something I don’t think you can avoid, it’s just the way things are. And what the hipster is, by definition, is a kind of scholar, a scholar of existing musical forms, visual forms, social forms. I hate fucking hipsters, but some of them know a lot of stuff... they’ve often done their homework. That’s not nothing. What is difficult to imagine now is the kind of radical social transformation that occurred in relationship to say when punk happened in the UK, as it were the whole culture changes in a short period of time. I don’t know what that would look like now or whether that is even possible.

WRECK PARK

  There seems to be an interesting analogy here between this kind of “pan-hipsterism” in relation to the emergence of punk. You get different versions of a sense of politics. Thinking about this with two canonized punk groups—the Sex Pistols and the Clash—you get nearly irreconcilable versions of a politics. On the one hand you have the Clash’s supposed populism, and on the other, you have the Pistols willful anarchy…

CRITCHLEY

  For me the Pistols were much more interesting as a project; their inauthenticity was palpable. Everything they did was inauthentic and it was all about taking down the music industry, ripping them off because they ripped people off. Very clearly in Malcolm McLaren: he was using Situationist techniques. He was using Guy Debord’s technique of détournement, he was using that very clearly; that’s what the Pistols were, without [Debord’s] revolutionary ‘68 context, they were simply a way of lampooning the absurdity of ‘70s consumer culture. If there was a politics, it was about how people had been had, and they were also had by the Pistols. It didn’t last very long, it was one album really.
  But the Clash seems like much more of a worthy story. I’ve always been struck by how popular the Clash are in the US because it feels like authentic punk. Whereas the Pistols are much closer to how it felt for me at the time and the kind of background I was from and the people I knew and the levels of artifice that we were working with; the Clash felt like imposters in a way (the post-Clash band I really liked was Big Audio Dynamite, with Mick Jones and Don Lettes. They were doing something much more aesthetically complicated with early forms of sampling). Joe Strummer had been a pub rock band called the 101ers and they were doing kind of rockabilly country rock stuff that was fine. And then he became aware punk was happening, formed a punk band, and adopted this very strong aesthetic that was visually very powerful. The Clash looked awesome. But the Pistols were a more refined and nihilistically wonderful project, and also what it produced in the case of Johnny Rotten/John Lydon was the path to Public Image [Ltd.], and Public Image for me are a really important band that are not taken seriously enough. Especially the first album and in particular Metal Box are incredibly important pieces of music.

WRECK PARK

  I’m glad we talked about punk and the Pistols because I’m interested in a certain shared investment between a philosophical tradition of thinking anarchy and a rather prominent legacy of anarchy in punk. I am trying to envision a relation between a sort of musical-cultural anarchy (put forth by the Sex Pistols) and anarchy conceptualized more broadly or philosophically…

CRITCHLEY

  The bands that really interested me didn’t really have an obvious political content to their music. It was a clear opposition to the so-called revolutionary politics of the previous generation which we thought were bourgeois and reactionary, and just trying to tear the whole thing down, really. In the name of what? Well we weren’t really sure—there wasn’t a program. It wasn’t left or right. And the really good bands were politically really quite confused, like the Pistols and the Vibrators and The Radiators from Space and Johnny Mopen and The Lurkers...it wasn’t clear at all. You get a sort of narrative about punk as some sort of populist-socialist rebellion, but that’s an after-the-fact reconstruction.
  What I never want to close down in popular music is its reactionary tendencies. This can go in really different directions, but that’s explosive quality of music: imagining you could be somewhere else is just a way of not being in your environment. It doesn’t necessarily mean a demand for justice or equality. It’s very possible to tell the story back to front as if they had a clear political vision and then they put it into effect musically. Instead, there was a strong sense that “this is rubbish, we don’t want to do this, let’s just tear this down.” And after that tearing down happened for a couple years it splintered off into different parts, some of which were politically quite interesting.

WRECK PARK

  And it is this lack of programaticity that gives music its force, that opens its potentialities. If you don’t have a political endgame, anything—or many more things—is possible…

CRITCHLEY

  Music is, by definition, unruly. It poses a challenge to whatever comfortable moralism we happen to be living in. On the whole, popular music has been an extraordinary force for good things…but most of it has been an unending tide of shit. But somehow, in the interstices of popular music, other things become possible. The way in which we see gender relations now—which is an awful lot better than when I was growing up—music enabled that in different ways. People like Bowie enabled that in different ways. Suddenly what it meant to be a boy or be a girl got a lot messier and more fluid. Maybe there is something in the fabric of music which makes different imaginings of gender possible. I think I want to say something like that. So that’s a tremendous force that has been enabled and cultivated by popular music.

WRECK PARK

  This all goes back to your chapter on anarchy in Faith of the Faithless, where you write, “Anarchism can only begin with an act of inward colonization, the act of love that demands a transformation of the self,” and this seems to be related to how we have been talking about subjectivity, and the self in relation to music and what music makes possible.

CRITCHLEY

  Yes. I think I agree...yes. I wasn’t thinking in “Mystical Anarchism” about music, but if you put the Bowie book alongside “Mystical Anarchism”, that is the conclusion you come to, no question about it. The way music is able to hold desire and the demand for love is extraordinary. And for me nothing else comes close to that. No other medium is able to come close to that. There is a kind of yearning in music, which at times is very overwhelming. Nothing for me is more important.